On language and food

Today I will veer away from politics, to the extent that is ever possible, and write about two unrelated topics: the mode of address in Hungarian and food quality. For a long time I have found the first topic amusing; the second, irritating. The inspiration to write about them came from two opinion pieces, both in Magyar Nemzet.

Let’s start with the amusing one. I have been noticing more and more frequently that in radio and television interviews the interviewer and the interviewee can’t decide whether they are on formal or informal terms. They switch back and forth with abandon. Then there are the interviews that begin with a lengthy explanation about the long-standing friendship between the two individuals that can justify the use of the informal. There is also the accepted practice that journalists always use the informal among themselves. This is observed even if the person in question was once a government minister but for a short time worked as a journalist. The person I’m thinking of in this particular instance is Gábor Kuncze. Huge confusion reigns in Hungarian sociolinguistics.

Obviously, I am not the only one who is bewildered by all this. In a recent Magyar Nemzet opinion piece the author states that “sooner or later the nation must make a deliberate decision whether it maintains the formal mode of address or it introduces a language reform as the Swedes have done.” The fact is that the informal is spreading in Hungarian with incredible speed, but the author is wrong in thinking that it greatly accelerated only after 1990. Already in the 1950s university students, regardless of sex, automatically used the informal. The habit was then expanded to office workers, teachers, doctors, and so on and so forth. By now total strangers use the informal in the most unusual circumstances. I was somewhat taken aback when a young relative of mine during a business call used the informal with a total stranger on the other end of the line. Or, here is a bizarre encounter from a few days ago. Zoltán Szabó, the respected editor of Index, had an unfortunate encounter with a security guard at a KFC. The KFC employee without a second thought called the bespectacled middle-aged Szabó “te.” Szabó also called the security guard “te.” In no time the security guard smashed Szabó in the face, presumably not because of a linguistic faux pas.

My other subject of the day is one that irritates me: the claim that Hungarian agricultural products, without exception, are vastly superior to anything produced elsewhere. To question this categorical statement is considered outright sinful. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by another Magyar Nemzet opinion piece titled “It would be quite enough if it were good.” To understand the title, one ought to know that not long ago there was a large agricultural exhibit, which was accompanied by a tsunami of ads about “the best of Hungarian soil.” The author writes that, for patriotic reasons, he bought only Hungarian products for years, but now he feels cheated because, as anyone can tell, Austrian or German yogurt, butter, cheese, and milk are better than their Hungarian counterparts. The campaign waged by the ministry of agriculture, which cost 1.85 billion forints, will not make Hungarian agricultural products better.

Three weeks later Zsolt Balásy, an analyst at MKB Bank, wrote an article with the startling title “Don’t buy domestic products: Winners and losers of globalization.” What should matter, he argues, is the price-value relationship and not where something was produced. Balásy then moves on to a discussion of watermelon. Anyone who follows the seasons in Hungary knows that there comes a time when the most important topic everywhere is the price and quality of watermelon. At the beginning of the article Balásy relates his conversation with a greengrocer at a market in Budapest who tells him that the watermelon he is selling is “not like the 100 ft. Hungarian one.” It is better because this watermelon comes from Greece. (In Hungarian, watermelon is called Greek melon.) For part of watermelon season the only Hungarian watermelon available is of lower quality because the best watermelons are exported, where they compete successfully. Protectionism necessarily lowers quality everywhere.

Together for Hungarian watermelon and for your health / Index /Photo: Janos Bődey

On the internet, I encountered a website called gyakorikérdések.hu where someone poses a question and waits for answers or comments. One of the questions was: “Why is there the perception that Hungarian products are the best and most delicious?” The answers supported my contention that this belief is simply a popular myth based on inappropriate comparisons. As Balásy said, one should not compare a delicious Hungarian peach to a watery Italian one because then there is no question that the Hungarian peach will be the winner. Some of the commenters attested to the fact that in many cases the foreign products are better than the domestic ones. This is especially true of dairy products. Judging from the comments, food nationalism no longer works, but the Hungarian government hasn’t recognized that fact yet.

October 16, 2017
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Member
Thank you Eva for addressing two issues I have been repeatedly discussed with my friends and relatives in Hungary, to no avail, I should say. It is not their fault, they were educated with false information. The formal and informal addressing is befuddling me all the time, because I am so used to the English you and addressing most everyone by their first name, that I have difficult time addressing some people in the formal way in Hungarian, and I have no intention of hurting their feelings one way or the other. I hope this linguistic anomaly will work itself out in a few decades. The other one is the quality of the food. We were raised and educated the the best onions are from Makó, the cabbages from Vecsés, paprika from Szeged, etc. Bunk. I venture to say that more than half of the Hungarians think, that the chile and the paprika that is made from it is if not Hungarian, it is European vegetable and product. Some people think corn and tomatoes were also always available in Europe. Hungarians are not well versed in the Columbian Exchange (Corn, Tomato, Potato, Squash, Tobacco, Cacao, etc.) Although many people could… Read more »
Ferenc
Guest

Fully agree.
Like to add: Claiming that one’s own mother tongue is better than another language, is not only insulting and disrespectful to the other, but also showing one’s own ‘less cleverness’ and in the long run can only have negative consequences for the person himself, her/his own mother tongue specifically and her/his culture in general.
Furthermore:
In general Hungarian people are too proud for their own good.

wrfree
Guest
Wow. For the most part I thought the inormal/firmal stuff was primarily a concern of mine. It has been always in the back of my head when meeting up. Not sure this is in other languages but in Magyar it’s really up there. Probably has to be something related to ‘hierarchies’ in the historio-sociological ‘DNA’ going back millenia with the language. Would be interesting to find out when ‘te’ got to be ‘te’ and everybody sure had to better get to know it fast or you’d get a lump on your head. And just a thing about food. I’ve been terribly spoiled gastronomically as having relations and family who could make a can of peas get a Michelin rating. I ate like a king and sutemeny had no peer to me. If Magyar food is supposedly not so good today I would at least hope that the Magyar predilection for being tremendous cooks and bakers still holds. But in our day and age that might be tough. Getting up before the roosters crow to roll and make the fresh dough and ‘all other fresh’ preparations to be used in the meal at dinner could be just too much.😎
Member

On today’s language topic, I have a challenge for Hungarian speakers. Have a look at this Nők Lapja cover and see if you can find anything odd about it:

https://www.facebook.com/noklapja/photos/a.156385064387683.32531.156384024387787/1973461902679981/?type=3&theater

Member

I got it! Everybody knows that Fördős Z. wears his watch on his right wrist.

Member

Lol no I was thinking of the lines “Azzal élj, akit szeretsz!” and “Hallgasson a testére!” as they mix up the formal and familiar forms on the very same cover. I guess I’m the only one who thinks that’s odd….

Member

Indeed.
Maybe “hallgasson a testére” means to say “HE should listen to HIS body.” I highly doubt it, but anything is possible.

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

For the longest time, after I arrived in America in 1957, I was aware of the two modes of addressing someone: informal/formal, Te/Maga. Then came the end of the Communist regime and I began meeting actual Hungarians who were not Hungarian Americans or relatives in Hungary. They introduced a new “gender” into addressing in a formal way: “Ön”. To this day I am confused which formal address is appropriate to whom.

Tyrker
Guest

Until the 16th century, there was only one way of addressing people in Hungarian – the “informal way of address,” as we know it now. At around that time, the formal way of address – maga – was introduced, most probably as a form of German influence. Some three hundred years later Count Széchenyi came up with “Ön” as he felt “maga” was not polite enough. The writer Jókai, who was one of his contemporaries, already used “Ön” extensively. Whether or not “Ön” spread with a similar speed in oral communication is hard to establish – your comment suggests that even in the 1950s, it was still not common. I personally think we may need to return to our Finno-Ugric roots by abandoning the formal way of address altogether, which is pretty much an alien concept in Hungarian anyway.

LwiiH
Guest

In season it is very difficult to get better watermelon any where. In Greece you can get a great watermelon but the sun destroys it within an hour or two after it comes off the vine. In Hungary you get a day before it is finished.

Most of the corn sold in Hungary is barely fit for cattle but All of the other veg and fruit we get at our local market is generally top shelf in season. Most of that travels less than 25km to get to the stall and that makes a huge difference in quality.

Wondercat
Guest

Among my acquaintance the phrase “Magyar termék” is used not to confer approbation but with eye-rolling and a connotation of “What can you expect? Of course it’s rubbish”.

Istvan
Guest

Azok, akik úgy teszek, mintha hatalmad lenne szavakat felhasználni mások megalázására. I honestly would have self esteem issues if I got smacked down by a guard at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Budapest, even at age 70. It would have led to me being locked up and or hospitalized no doubt for the donnybrook that would have likely ensued. All for calling a rent a cop – you, amazing.

By the way I think very highly of Spanish smoked paprika called Pimenton de la Vera. La Vera is in western Spain. The largest town is Jaraíz de la Vera. Located at the feet of the Sierra de Gredos mountain range, in the Tiétar river valley. I have come to like it more than Hungarian paprika.

Guest
I know there are many products in Hungary which are very tasty, but this assertion about being the “best” just illustrates the Hungarian tendency to exaggerate on almost all issues, instead of judiciously reflecting on what is and is not real. One of the things I miss a lot, coming from the UK, is decent thick, fresh cream! Last summer I bought an ice cream maker which we took on holiday to Croatia. where I bought fresh local cream and made my first batch of (dare I say it) fabulously creamy and delicious vanilla ice cream. Back in Budapest I was hoping to repeat my new accomplishment, and invited friends over. But there are only two creams available here. One is the cooking long life cream in little cartons, and the other is called “hab tejszin” – whipping cream – which is fresh but is very thin and takes ages to whip up. Needless to say, my second go at ice cream was a flop and tasted watery rather than creamy. In case anyone is interested in my little cream issue, Culinaris sells, at a cost, delicious and proper creams from all over Europe, and next time I make ice… Read more »
Aida
Guest

Do not eat ice cream. It blocks up your arteries and the sugar makes you fat and gives you diabetes. Sorbet is slightly better and frozen yoghurt better still. English double cream is a serious health hazard.
In France, as in my childhood, whipped cream means Chantilly. Outside Normandy I doubt if double cream is used in cookery.

Wondercat
Guest

Eat ice cream. As Friedrich der Große said, when watching some of his troops push away their dishes of Eis as they grumbled, “Kein Sorbet, kein Yogurt?!” — Hunde, wollt Ihr ewig leben?

Aida
Guest

Haha, not for ever. Just want a healthy life, as long as it lasts.

Guest

The quality of Hungarian dairy products is sometimes really low – my wife’s the expert there obviously and we buy a lot of stuff on our trips to Germany. I now have 3 cooling boxes in my car …
Some things are just not available in Hungary or imported and really expensive like good (fatty – 30%) sour cream and cheese …
On the other hand there is meat which is really good (szürke marha and mangalica e g), the phenomenal kolbász one of our neighbours makes and the eggs from my neighbour’s hens are the best in the world (say my German friends)!

The problem there is the price which many Hungarians are not willing or rather not able to pay so they use the cheap substandard stuff …

Not too much OT:

There are some companies in Hungary which sell high quality vegetables etc (even pálinká …) to the West – many of them owned by foreigners who know that you can get a really good price for really good quality.
They sometimes don’t offer their products in Hungary because they know that Hungarians aren’t willing to pay the necessary sums!

petofi
Guest

Having been back in Montreal now for about 6 weeks, I must admit that Hungarian fruits and vegetables are far superior, especially watermelon.
In Canada now, they sell only the ghastly ‘seedless’ (which has white seeds). It’s horrible modified stuff which, at best, can only be a 4 on a scale of 10. What’s really bad is that you can’t get the normal watermelon anywhere! Ridiculous.

bimbi
Guest

@petofi, 3:38 a.m.

Did you really go to Montreal for the watermelon??? Buy cheese instead.

petofi
Guest

@ bimbi

“…you die from a million nicks and cuts…”

No, we went back because I couldn’t stomach the duplicity of most Hungarians and the society as a whole…Aside from that, people were always getting upset at us for imagined slights–

Marty
Guest
Anybody who has been reading the Bűvös Szakács blog or Tamás B. Molnar’s writings (of Magyar Gasztrónómiai Társaság) knows that almost the entire Hungarian food discourse is based on myths. The famous “Hungaricum” mangalitsa pigs are not Hungarian but come from the Balkans (most of them are anyway mixed mangalitza and other types), the famous long horn grey cattle originate from Italy and today their meat is unusable for high quality dishes, no self-respecting baker would use Hungarian flour (OK, some use specially grown organic wheat in minor quantities) because the wheat is basically animal fodder category, most of the potato grown in Hungary is also animal fodder category yet sold to people, most of the dry red pepper paprika powder is uneatable (rancid, bitter etc.), many “traditional Hungarian dishes” like lecsó etc. exist all over the world in various forms (there are few if any significant truly Hungarian dishes) and so on and on and on. The situation is better than it was 10 years ago but it is still very bad. But the thing is: demand is small. For most people only price matters and quality stuff costs 2-3 times more than the cheapest quality products. Over 80%,… Read more »
bimbi
Guest

@Marty, 4:19 a.m.

But we didn’t come here because of the food but rather because of the quality of political discourse.

It is not easy to find a collection of liars like Orban, Lazar, Habony, Rogan and Matolcsy all in one place elsewhere.

.Collectively, these are the real “Hungaricums”

petofi
Guest

@ bimbi

Quite right.

What is most discouraging is that the average citizen, if given the opportunity, would be as treacherous and thieving as today’s Hungarian politicians!

Member

What I could never get was, why I must address municipal bureaucrats as “Ön,” but God Almighty, a.k.a. Jehovah, creator of heaven and earth, king of kings, lord of lords, is satisfied with a “Te.”

Member

I’ve wondered that as well. Perhaps the Bible was translated before there were formal forms in widespread usage? Just a guess.

Observer
Guest

My personal experience is acceptable and often good row products, veggies, fruit, meat, no top quality stuff. The bad ones are mostly from the processed, baked stuff categories and often due to cheating on ingredients, e.g. honey, sausage. Restaurant food is generally mediocre, worse in the countryside.

Articles assert that almost three times more mangalica pork products are offered than the livestock would allow.
Or, that the top restaurants procure 80% of their food stuff abroad.

Guest
It is a widespread opinion that languages which develop from complexity to simplicity improve in efficiency. The efficiency of languages can be compared by counting the number of letters or words required to express the same meaning in the different languages. If you buy something with an instruction manual in different languages you will usually find the English instruction considerably shorter than the instructions in the other languages. English is probably the most efficent language because it is the simplest. In English there was originally a choice between two words, the familiar thou and the formal you, for adressing another person. The choice was often problematic and it was abandoned in the 17th century. Everybody was from then on adressed by the same word, you. This of course was a great step forward in the simplification of the English language. Complicated rules were thrown away. It became easier to speak English. The cumbersome rules about how to adress people in Hungarian are being challenged now, four hundred years after the same thing happened in England. The Hungarian language has a long way to go, and it is now moving at a perceivable speed. The most remarkable development.is the trend to… Read more »
Member

My wife has two aunts who are sisters to each other. She is very close to both of them, she always addresses one of the aunts in formal Hungarian and the other in familiar Hungarian. When I pointed this out to her she said she didn’t know why she did it and wasn’t even consciously aware of it!

Guest
The efficiency of languages can be compared by counting the number of letters or words required to express the same meaning in the different languages. If you buy something with an instruction manual in different languages you will usually find the English instruction considerably shorter than the instructions in the other languages. English is probably the most efficient language because it has developed steadily in the direction of simplicity. In English there was originally a choice between two words, the familiar thou and the formal you, for adressing another person. The choice was often problematic and it was abandoned in the 17th century. Everybody was from then on adressed by the same word, you. This of course was a great step forward in the simplification of the English language. Complicated rules were thrown away. It became easier to speak English. The cumbersome rules about how to address people in Hungarian are being challenged now, four hundred years after the same thing happened in England. The Hungarian language has a long way to go and it has begun moving. The most remarkable new development is the trend to abbreviate nouns by replacing one or more terminal syllables with an i. When… Read more »
Gretchen
Guest

I am a fairly frequent visitor to Hungary from the US. In Hungary I read that Monsanto and its products are not permitted. That alone makes Hungarian food much better than what I can get here–unless it’s organic. Monsanto’s glyphosphate is in everything!

Guest

Sorry, Gretchen (nice name btw …), but I have to disappoint you:
Glyphosat is available really cheap in Hungary as a generic product everywhere – we bought some to “kill” invasive plants in Germany and in Hungary, also for my brother in law in Munich. It would have been much more difficult for him to get in Germany!

Of course we use it only as a “last resort” on some invasive species – but I know that many people use it without care …

Marty
Guest

Gretchen, the only thing that Hungary doesn’t have is GMO crops (not grown). Otherwise GMO fodder (imported) is given to animals, totally normal. Secondly, glyphosate is not an exclusive Monsanto product, the compound has been around since the mid-1970’s manufactured by various producers. There used to be about 60 glyphosate products available in Hungary (they are popular). The licenses of about half of them were revoked recently due to EU regulations but even so they could be used until the end of 2017 (the other half are still available). Monsanto, just as Bayer, Syngenta etc. are present in Hungary and are very active. They just don’t sell GMO seeds but everything else is available and are used by local farmers. Industrial agriculture is the same everywhere – the EU regulations are a bit more stringent (eg. no growth hormones to cattle) but the difference isn’t too big. The bottom line is, the greatness, cleanliness of Hungarian food is mostly a myth. (The neonicotinoids are another major issue and the situation isn’t good either.)

Observer
Guest

Gretchen

In Hungary they have a joke (and not only as a joke, I’m affraid) that “bio” are the products treated with the same chemicals, but at night.

As for quality, try eating in France, Italy or Austria…

Richard Ray
Guest

Food is very dear to me and I have been a localvore (one who buys local foods in season) since living in 1.Michigan: sour cherries, apples, pears, sweet corn, blueberries, salmon, trout, pike, perch, venison, pheasant all excellent. 2: South Carolina: world class peaches, watermelon, tomatoes, okra (look it up), pecans, shrimp, catfish, barbecue. 3. Hungary: sour cherries (again), strawberries (getting rare), plums, walnuts, peppers beyond human imagination, watermelon (good Cecei is hard to beat in season) cabbage, potatoes, and pork turned into an art form. You’re right, Slovakian yogurt is better, Italian tomatoes win, except when Hungarian ones are in the right season, and I like imported cheese. But with the pride in their food comes a certain consumer standard that keeps much of the food produced here to a very high level. So I buy as much as I can at the local market. It’s the only way I can vote here.

Reality Check
Guest

The larger “farmers” markets in Budapest are set-up to encourage competition. There might be 20 to 40 vegetable sellers, 15 pork product sellers, 6 that sell chicken, 6 or so that sell pickled goods, etc. It is very easy for customers to comparison shop in a relatively small space. This very likely keeps prices lower and quality higher. Except for the large city market, most are unknown to tourists so they are priced for locals.

Provided the year’s climate is reasonable, Hungarian grown fruits/veggies are very good. May not always be pretty enough for some. All of these markets have many direct farm to market vendors. Many are dressed in their farm clothing.

Many, but not all of the markets have escaped conversion to supermarkets. These are some of my favorite places in Budapest. I hope they stick around.

I think if you know how to shop in the city you can get very good food. I have always had good experiences in the countryside too. However, my experiences are limited to the warm seasons.

On the other hand supermarket food quality varies from top to bottom quality.

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